The divine kingship of the Shilluk: On violence, utopia, and the human condition, or, elements for an archaeology of sovereignty

David Graeber


Since Frazer's time, Shilluk kingship has been a flashpoint of anthropological debates about the nature of sovereignty, and while such debates are now considered irrelevant to current debates on the subject, they need not be. This essay presents a detailed analysis of the history, myth, and ritual surrounding the Shilluk institution to propose a new set of distinctions: between "divine kingship" (by which humans can become god through arbitrary violence, reflexively defining their victims as "the people") and "sacred kingship" (the popular domestication of such figures through ritual), and argues that kingship always represents the image of a temporary, imperfect solution to what is taken to be the fundamental dilemma of the human condition—one that can itself only be maintained through terror.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.14318/hau1.1.002